Monday, June 20, 2011

Celebrate the Summer Solstice on Muir Beach

Summer solstice at Muir Beach. Photo by Frog Mom
"Celebrate the longest day of the year at the continent's edge, Muir Beach. Join us for storytelling and songs around a bonfire." Every year the rangers of Muir Woods organize two events to celebrate the passage of the shortest and the longest day of the year.

December 21st marks the winter solstice with a luminaria-lit redwood ceremony at Muir Woods National Monument. June 21st marks the summer solstice with a beach bonfire, stories and the sound of crashing waves on Muir Beach. They both have their particular charm but kids definitely prefer an evening at the beach where they can run and splash around before the ceremony starts.

In sharp contrast with the craze of Muir Woods, Muir Beach is a quiet beach with fine sand and trails that climb up the bluffs to lovely overlooks. When we arrived last year around 5pm, parking was easy. We gathered our beach toys and food, crossed the boardwalk on Redwood Creek and crossed the beach to reach the bonfire spot.

The rangers were busy like bees setting up their signs, blankets and boxes of props and music instruments. The bonfire was already on its way though its warmth was not needed yet. We were pretty much in the first dozen of participants and I feared - without reason as you will see - that we would be part of a very small crowd.

We lay our blanket on the sand facing north and broke the picnic dinner as our girls frolicked in the sand. Ironically we thought we were so sophisticated with our home-made sandwiches and fruit when in fact people bring full coolers of food, hot dogs to roast on sticks, wine and fancy stem glasses. All of a sudden we were apprentices in the world of beach bonfires!

Waiting for the evening to come, I walked up part of the trail and enjoyed the beach basking in the last golden rays of a sunny day. I could see myself waiting here a long time but advancing shadows told me I had better come down not to miss the show.

Mia Monroe, superintendant of Muir Woods National Monument, announced the official start of the ceremony. Our girls settled down next to us and converted their playful energy into storytime energy. They were about to learn about the sun and the moon and the longest day and shortest night of the year.

At the very beginning, we all took turns adding stems of wild mustard to the bonfire so they would burn later on. I forget the specs now but I think it's because it's an invasive plant and it was a symbol of native habitat restoration.

The first musical act consisted of the Marin band Orange Sherbet who led the crowd into hippie family songs. As I write this a year later, I wish I could find the song booklet they distributed to tell you which songs. All were familiar tunes and most people joined in the sing-along.

I was surprised to notice some in the audience had brought their own musical instruments - drums, guitar, ukulele. They even joined the Orange Sherbet lady duo on a few tunes. This was a community experience!

The evening unfolded with animal stories, a puppet show, nature songs accompanied on the guitar and poetry.

I talked with a couple behind us and the woman turned out to be a total francophile and a former French teacher in Latin America. Good for me! She was a friend of Ms Monroe and introduced me after the ceremony was over. I was thrilled.

As we were about to leave, a family behind us shared a coveted treasure with our girls which they could not refuse: marshmallows!

They each grabbed a handful, didn't even bother about sticks and gobbled them up like they hadn't eaten in a day. Guess the home-made sandwiches weren't enough after all!

Knowing we still had an hour of driving to head home, we packed our belongings and bade goodbye to the people we had gotten to know around us. For a bonfire with total strangers, I was surprised at how friendly it turned out to be.

In the fading evening, the hills of Marin were still sunny but by the time we reached the city, dark was upon us.

On our girls too. They were sound asleep. Dreaming of celestial coyotes, sneaky raccoons and mighty moons.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father's Day: Meet My Dad

My dad, Marc Latham. Photo by Frog Mom
Happy Father's Day! Meet my dad, one of my best supporters and a wonderful grand-father for my girls. According to my husband, he does A-OK for a father-in-law too. My dad visits us every year from France and every time he does, he's part of a few Frog Mom adventures working behind the scenes (much like my husband) so things run smoothly. I want to honor him today by telling you about him, one of my inspirations in life. Here's to Marc.

My dad (center) and my brother Jean (standing).
New Caledonia, Mont Dore. 1978?
My dad is an outdoorsy guy. He grew up in a French country town during the second World War and graduated as a soil scientist, a career that led him to roam trail-less mountains and deserts of Africa in the 1960s and the South Pacific in the 1970s.

In 2010 at Saddlebag Lake. Photo by Frog Mom
When I was a kid in New Caledonia, he was always back from an expedition or his way to a new one. See, he was charting islands for their soil content (literally, making maps where there were none) and needed to explore rugged territory to take soil samples and analyze them back in labs. Every time we go hiking, he tells us about soil and rock formations around us. My girls now know that when there's a question about botany, soils, rocks, gems or anything vaguely green or brown, my dad's the ultimate resource and they got that right.

My dad is a tireless hiker, backpacker and camper. He took me on my first backpacking trip with my brothers on the Dogny Plateau in New Caledonia when I was 8. On that tropical meadow before sunset, there was no firewood to be found and we were about to eat our canned dinner but needed a fire to warm it up. He taught us to look for "gas plants," pagoda-like green plants that burned really well in the fire. It was awesome!
My dad at Lake Assal, Ethiopia in 2004

My dad is an adventurer. His grand-father was a well-known French adventurer-writer considered by many of his generation like the last French pirate, Henry de Monfreid. In 2004, my dad traveled to Ethiopia to retrace his grand-father's footsteps and see the country where his mother grew up.

My mom and my dad in New Caledonia, 1972
To me, my dad was more like an Indiana Jones of the South Pacific, staying in huts with tribes of Papua New Guinea or getting ship-stranded on some small atoll of New Caledonia. The time his boat got stranded and they were fishing around the island to find food, my mom learned about the accident when a work colleague called home to say they'd found them. Seriously.

My dad can cook crepes, sausages, couscous and enough staples to host his friends in the south of France but the one thing he taught me in the kitchen and that's his thing (because my mom is such a good cook) is how to make jam. I don't know what he would do without his copper pot.

Cooking sausages at Tuolumne Meadows.
Photo by Frog Mom
He's a prolific jam maker and every year when I make batches of jam, I call him to let him know. Sometimes we even compare tips over the phone. His big fave is quince jelly. Mine is guava jelly. Just sayin'.

My dad is funny. He likes to tell jokes, no  matter how good or bad they are. Sometimes he's too funny if you ask my mom when he cracks a bathroom joke over lunch. She rolls her eyes, says something along the lines of now's-not-the-time and my dad stops - or not. The good news is, he always tries again!

With my husband in 2010. Photo by Frog Mom
My dad is a writer. When he was associate professor at the college of agriculture in Kyoto (Japan) a few years back, he sent us write-ups of his tribulations (he even tried to learn how to speak Japanese at age 60) and they delighted us. In the past five years, I've collaborated with him on a big project, the biography of his great-grand-father who was a French post-impressionist painter and Gauguin's best friend. Some 400 pages later, the biography's written and we're shopping for a publisher. Now I'd like to get him started on his memoirs.

Two laps. Not more. Cambodia, 2010
My dad is fair. I really mean it. He never badmouthes anybody, hates gossip and just tries his best to be fair to people in life. I rarely even hear him judge people based on what others say. He doesn't like judgments, he goes by empirical facts and conclusions. That's something I yet have to improve on.

My dad only swims two laps of every pool. He goes in, swims one lap, comes back and gets out. I never really understood why but that's how he does it.

Thailand, in 2010 with my girls and my dad
My dad snores. That's him snoring here. Kidding! That's not my dad snoring.

My dad does't like cities. He prefers the countryside. He gets bored when he cannot be outside. And he bores us because he's restless so we find a way to get him outside.

My dad doesn't like loud music. That's because he can't hear well. His eardrums were damaged in a car accident in his 30s and he's used to asking us to repeat what we just said. Even without that, I don't think he would like loud music.

Grandfather on duty. Photo by Frog Mom
My dad doesn't like sad stories. When I asked him for advice about a new travel blog I'm starting on California, he said "write about the California that makes people dream." I got that in my tagline "La Californie qui fait rêver."

My dad is an incredible grand-father. Ask my girls. They can't wait to see Bon Papa next week. Fortunately, he doesn't mind being bossed around by them.

Best dad ever. Wouldn't trade for anyone else.

Happy Father's Day Papa!

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Wine country weekend: Archer Taylor Preserve, Bouchon Bakery and Coppola Winery

Sonoma winery, Hollywood meets Disneyland. Photo by Frog Mom
This wouldn't be California without a winery with three swimming pools where customers sip chardonnay at the pool café listening to live Vegas tunes before visiting the museum filled with Hollywood memorabilia while kids relax post-swim in a "kid library" tee-pee with a view on Sonoma green rolling hills. This wouldn't be Napa either without a stop at the bakery of a Michelin-starred restaurant that sells awesome chocolate tarts and only-in-Napa foie gras dog biscuits to enjoy at the outdoors patio. The biggest surprise though, was a redwood forest on a hilltop with a trail leading to a milky waterfall in Napa.

I swear, we initially planned to do a weekend of hiking and camping in Napa. Somehow, things took a different turn but the kids didn't complain. They love swimming.

Devils Well Falls. Photo by C.G.
Archer Taylor Natural Preserve
High in the hills above the city of Napa on the western side, Archer Taylor Preserve starts at the end of a dirt road and dives deep into redwood territory. While I knew about the mountainous side of Napa (try Mt St Helena for a good workout!), I had no idea redwoods could thrive this far inland.

On Saturday a dozen adults and kids got ready and hopped in cars to reach the trail head at the end of Redwood Road, trail head where the kids begged us to stay because of a massive trampoline and two goats grazing around picnic tables. One of them was a "unigoat," a goat with only one horn. We promised to spend some time after the hike.

Redwood Creek. Photo by C.G.
The hike itself was short and sweet on moderately steep terrain down to the creek, then mostly level and gradually up to the falls. Since there is no clear trail map at the parking area, we wouldn't have been able to find our way without a friend of ours who knows the trails and led the way.

Our loop to the lower Devils Well Falls was probably a 2-mile loop. For more exploration, other hikers report they can scramble up the lower falls to a second and third level of falls in a canyon. Not sure how that works with little kids so better stick to the easier lower falls.

 At the end of the hike, we stopped at the trampoline and enjoyed some bouncing time before heading out and camping by Redwood Creek in the backyard of this friend.

Note: access to the waterfall is on private property of the Land Trust of Napa County and to come here you need to join a guided tour or obtain permission to hike on the Preserve by contacting caretakers Bill Albrecht and Anne Ledvina at least 24 hours in advance at 707-254-0996 or by e-mailing.

The 10am line at Bouchon Bakery. Photo by Frog Mom
Bouchon Bakery
"If there's a line out the door, it's a good sign" says my dad, who always gauges a restaurant by how busy the waiters are. If that holds up in Napa, Bouchon Bakery in Yountville deserves its 4.5 stars on Yelp and a place in the pantheon of gourmet bakeries.

Tipped off by a friend, we showed up at 10am on a sunny Sunday with 5 kids and 4 adults in dire need of breakfast. The line already extended around the bakery - ominous sign!

Hungry yet? Photo by C.G.
On this quiet posh strip of the Napa Valley, the famous French Laundry is only a few doors down the street and Bouchon Bistro right next door, a total of 4 Michelin stars for celebrated chef Thomas Keller who owns them both. There was no way we were missing out on Bouchon Bakery croissants despite the 40-minute line.

So the kids sat at the outdoors patio tables while we adults mused on what we'd get once inside - the line is not only long, it is slow. "I want to mortgage my house for this croissant!" said my friend Kazz who was daydreaming on the Michelin-starred treats. I suggested a Pinot-infused strawberry compote turnover if there was one but there wasn't one.

Buns, croissants, PB sandwiches. Photo by C.G.
While we all fantasized on extravagant Napa takes on classic bakery items, the line slowly made its way and we were faced with the impossible choice: what's for breakfast?

We picked a chocolate almond croissant and strawberry almond croissant for me, epi bread crown for my 2nd grader, chocolate croissant for my kindergartner, pain aux raisins and almond croissant for my husband. Others also picked a smoked turkey sandwich (that was a ravenous kindergartner), the bread butter pudding and the peanut butter cream filled cookie. Overall, we were happy but the chocolate almond croissant was just too heavy - it needed a lighter texture.

Fit for royal pooches. Photo by C.G.
As for the extravagant Napa take, the one item that  wins the cake  was the foie gras dog biscuit. Now that was over the top, even if I actually regretted not buying one for myself at lunch time. In the pastries department, all were utterly delicious. The chocolate bouchons that give their name to the bakery are totally worth the line, as are the rhubarb-strawberry macarons.

Info: 6528 Washington Street, Yountville. Phone: 707.944.2253

Francis Ford Coppola Winery
Last on the agenda for a real wine country experience, a winery! I heard about the new Francis Ford Coppola Winery last year and wanted to visit it but not for wino reasons: it has three swimming pools, bocce ball courts, live music, pool side eating and a Coppola museum. That's something my kids can live with.

The reason the winery's so popular. Photo by Frog Mom
Located in Geyserville right off 101, the winery is smack at the entrance of the Alexander Valley. We arrived around noon and snatched the last pool passes available. From the Yelp reviews I've read, people line up at the gates on weekends, run to secure a poolside chair and send their friends to buy pool passes. Our experience, on the reverse, was pretty chill. We just walked up to the main desk, bought our passes, got paper wrist bands and were handed plush terry towels for the pool as well as free combination locks for the locker rooms.

Pool café  Photo Coppola Winery.
At $15 per adult and $10 per kid, it's a better deal than flying to the Mandala Bay for the day and lifeguards guarantee there are no drunken idiots messing around the pool. For that price, you get to enjoy a full day of Sonoma summer sun, clean pools and live music on weekends. The pool capacity is topped at 184 people but lots of guests just lay their towel down and go wine tasting. Kids can swim their hearts out!

Since picnicking is not allowed, the grounds are super clean (no bags of Cheetos flying around, thank you) but obviously when you're hungry, you need to buy food there. Aha. Which we did. Our kids asked for seconds of the Pizza Luigino, a simple tomato pizza with mozzarella. Delivered directly to our towel on the lawn, it tasted surprisingly good.

Tucker and Godfather props. Photo by C.G.
A pitcher of rosé on ice for the grown-ups makes a refreshing pool wine that doesn't club you right away. As for the cabines (cabanas), I really don't see their point. You already have access to free lockers and the cabines are not Las Vegas-style sheltered lounging areas by the pool. They're changing rooms with keys. I say, save $75 and splurge on something else. As in .... a replica of The Godfather desk? I'm kidding.

Dracula, a man of good taste. Photo by C.G.
The museum is the last must-see stop at the winery, a collection of costumes, set items and Academy awards (including typed notes for the award hosts) that will delight movie buffs. From the striking window case with the Dracula bride lace gown and Count Vlad stylized armor, to the Apocalypse Now displays with period off-screen shootage, the first floor is meant to make you drool in awe before you climb to the second floor.

The second floor welcomes you with the desk and armchair of The Godfather, two pieces of furniture that stop everybody in their footsteps before their jaw drops. Past the initial shock, you can drift to the wall of Academy awards - real ones - and walk around the promenade to the last room dedicated to Marie-Antoinette.

Big model boats used in Marie-Antoinette. Photo by C.G.
I find it really cool that despite the "Francis Ford" part of the winery, the father displays his daughter Sofia's work on an equal footing with his. She also has a pizza under her name. What more could a daughter ask?

The last room features two incredible scaled model boats that were paraded on a fireworks background in a battle scene on Versailles' grand canal in the movie Marie-Antoinette. Kids were all over them - understandably and we had to pull them away from these marvelous constructions.

The same room happens to have a nice selection of gifts for children, which helped in the diversion.

We did camp! Photo by Frog Mom
Info: 300 Via Archimedes, Geyserville. Phone: 707-857-1471.

You can never tell what will happen when you go camping in Napa without a reservation. You may end up pitching your tent in someone's backyard, change itinerary and live the high Wine country life for a day. Not a bad way to kick off the summer!